I was initially aware of Patricia Highsmith, as most non-fans probably are, as the author of The Talented Mr Ripley – and that only because I’d seen the film, not read the book. Then a couple of years ago I read Deep Water for an online book club and was instantly hooked…and astounded. How had I not realised what a good writer she was? Since then two more high-profile film adaptations have been released – The Two Faces of January and Carol – and Highsmith has been made, quite rightly, a Virago Modern Classic.
The more I read her books the more I wondered about the woman herself, as I often do about crime writers actually. What kind of person – what kind of woman? – could come up with these gruesome scenarios and could explore death and murder in almost celebratory detail? Usually, as I discovered when I attended Spring Thrills at the Rooftop Book Club recently, the writers behind the fantastically popular modern crime genre are perfectly normal – and often funny, feisty and fascinating. The kind of people you’d enjoy going out to dinner with.
Not quite so Patricia Highsmith. Having decided to take the plunge and read Andrew Wilson’s hefty biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith I soon discovered that she was possibly the most socially awkward and eccentric writer I’d ever read about and someone you might not feel entirely comfortable sitting next to at a restaurant, particularly with her handbag full of snails. Nevertheless I began to find her outlandish behaviour and unconventional life oddly compelling.
Despite the occasionally dry tone of Wilson’s opus (he provides a lot of social context, which is sometimes interesting and relevant and…sometimes not) I persevered, albeit slowly. About half way through I found my motivation – The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson was coming out and I was offered a proof copy. Is it right or even fair to say I knew it would be good before I’d read a single page? Perhaps not but I think most bookworms know ‘the feeling’ you get when it comes to certain books.
Jill Dawson is the successful author of nine novels and has been shortlisted for the Whitbread and Orange Prizes. I’m not sure where the particular inspiration for The Crime Writer came from, although in the acknowledgements she does say she has ‘long been addicted to Patricia Highsmith’s fiction’ and her website tells me she ‘is renowned for her novels revisiting known stories and famous figures’, but mere pages in it is quite clear she is a huge fan and that this book is a very sincere tribute.
The Crime Writer is a fictionalised account of a short period of time in Highsmith’s life that she spent in Suffolk. She was already well-known at this point and was often fearful of being found by fans and journalists. Her increasing paranoia amply accommodates the crime caper that follows and there are many moments of near-farcical humour as she attempts to remain elusive. This American wasn’t, however, the type to blend in anywhere, let alone the genteel English countryside of the 1960s.
As Highsmith hides, writes and tends to her snails she becomes increasingly highly-strung as she pursues married lover Sam while being pursued herself by attractive young journalist Ginny. It falls to local and fellow writer Ronnie to calm her down and tame her excesses – but in his absence her grip on reality falters, to fatal effect.
Funny, horrific and moving in turn this is a riveting read and an intriguing glimpse into the murky depths of an extraordinary writer. Jill Dawson captures Highsmith’s eccentricities brilliantly, while somehow also managing to convey her humanity. By seamlessly blending fact and fiction alongside the tender as well as grotesque sides of her personality Dawson has coaxed the eternally reluctant Highsmith out of the shadows and made her relatable – a skill that Highsmith herself excelled at in her own fiction.
I was endlessly impressed by the attention to detail, particularly having come to this straight from Wilson’s biography. Fans of Highsmith will also love spotting the echoes of her fiction weaved in and throughout the narrative – but don’t be put off if you haven’t read any of her work. This is the perfect springboard from which to discover this unique writer if you haven’t already and I myself am pleased to have discovered Jill Dawson.
– Mel Mitchell, nudge-book.com